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Search Engines 101: Part I

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Everyone knows what search engines are. But relatively few know how to use them effectively. Search engine marketing and search engine optimization are critically important to online businesses. You can spend every penny you have on a website, but it will all be for nothing if nobody knows your site is there.

My next few blog posts will break down some of the fundamentals of search engines, help you better understand how they work, and tell you how you can make them work for you.

It's important to know what you don't know. It's okay if you don't know directly what to do with this information. The important thing is to know that it's important, and then find someone (either in-house staff, or a consultant) who specializes in these matters to get your website "search-engine optimized."

How the search engines really work
Search engines use electronic devices (called spiders, bots, or robots) to scan the Internet for information from all public websites. After the search engine has cataloged this information, someone entering a word or phrase (a "query") can call up a ranked list of all the relevant search results.

Relevance is a search engine's holy grail. People want results that are closely connected to their queries. Different search engines use different criteria and rules to determine relevance. For example, some engines use the number of links pointing to a particular website as a gauge of its popularity. Others use the domain name. For example, CuffLinks.com would be more popular than abcufflinks.com.

Every search engine has developed formulas - and the formulas are constantly changing - to evaluate the relevance of any web page's content to a search query. Search engine companies tend to keep their formulas for this process secret. Here's an explanation of this from Google. Stop reading if you get a headache:

"The software behind our search technology conducts a series of simultaneous calculations requiring only a fraction of a second. Traditional search engines rely heavily on how often a word appears on a web page. We use more than 200 signals, including our patented PageRank algorithm, to examine the entire link structure of the web and determine which pages are most important. We then conduct hypertext-matching analysis to determine which pages are relevant to the specific search being conducted. By combining overall importance and query-specific relevance, we're able to put
the most relevant and reliable results first. (Corporate Information, Google)"

Organic Search
Most Internet users are not inclined to wade through pages and pages of search results. So the goal for businesses is not merely to be listed, but to place in the first few pages of results - ideally, on the first page.

In the past, you could pay for higher placements in query results that applied to your site. There are still a few search engines that will do this. But Google changed the playing field when it designed an egalitarian model that produced ranked, relevant results from all available sites, not just those that paid for the privilege. As a result, search engine optimization and search engine marketing soon became critical areas businesses needed to address to improve visibility and drive traffic.

At the present time search results come in two flavors: organic and paid. Paid results appear in a pale-colored box across the top and run partway down the right side of the page. Organic results fill the majority of the page, usually include more description and have a link near the end of the text.

When you optimize your pages for organic search, your goal is to move your pages higher in the list of search results. Search engine optimization should be a part of your marketing program. It does take time to achieve improved rankings this way, but the work will pay off in the long run. Basic optimization strategies include cultivating incoming links and presenting quality content (especially text) that incorporates important Keywords. While it's difficult to track how much website owners are making from organic search engine marketing, many people are making a living from the business leads they get through organic results. There are many companies that offer optimization services, and it can definitely be worth your while to invest in their expertise.

On-Page and Off-Page Factors That Affect Ranking
Many factors contribute to getting higher search-engine rankings. "On-page" factors are those associated with your site's web pages. "Off-page" factors are ways to affect your ranking that don't appear on an actual web page.

On-page factors include:

1. Strong Keywords. Determine the best Keywords and Keyword phrases for
your market, products and the people searching for your products and services.

2. Design. Know how to design a page that is search-engine friendly. This is part art, part science and extremely important. I recall an entire website that was designed in a type of software that makes website design easy. The site looked great, but the search engines couldn't "read" any words on the page. The result: the beautiful site was invisible to the search engines.

3. Create words. Put words on your page that are the exact same as the top
search engine queries people type into the search engines when they are looking for what you provide. It's also a good idea to use synonyms for these words.

4. Each page on the site must be original content. Don't copy text from a supplier. If you take the product description directly from a supplier, your page will be the same as every other firm that uses the same text. You won't place any higher in the rankings, and the duplication may work against you.

5. Freshness of the content. Keep your content up-to-date. Be on top of your market so you can continually revise Keywords and copy.

6. Usability. Make certain your site is user-friendly. Categorization schemes based on hyperlinked text are excellent ways to improve rankings and help your visitors quickly find what they are looking for.

7. Direct navigation. How much direct navigation traffic does the site get? A domain name built on one of your primary Keywords is like gold.

8. Metatags. Each page of your site needs a unique "metatag" to tell the search engines about that page. Make sure you understand how to use metatags properly.

9. Stickiness. Look at website metrics that let you know how long a visitor stays on a page and on your site overall. Do people stay on your site for 8 seconds or 15 minutes? If users stay on a site longer, the site is generally doing a better job meeting their needs. Sites that aren't sticky generally fail to present targeted, persuasive copy (and copy does affect your ranking). When visitors stay on a page longer, search engines give the page a higher importance rating.

10. Site submissions. In general, you are better off waiting until the spiders naturally crawl your site. There are techniques to speed up the process. When search engines do allow you to submit your site, the process can take time. Submitting your site may make sense if you have made major changes to your site, but be very careful not to submit frequently. Understand the specific requirements of each search engine and submit your web address accordingly.

Off-page factors include:

1. Links. Frequently reevaluate the inbound and outbound links to your site and answer these questions:
  • How many links point to your site?
  • Are they quality links?
  • How old are the links?
  • What is the content at the other end of those links?
  • Were they "free" links or did you pay for them?
  • Do you "reciprocate" these links?
  • Do the links take the prospect directly to the page they want or to the homepage?
2. Directory listings. Services such as Open Directory Project (DMOZ) and Yahoo! are respected directory listings. When these directories include a link to your site, it has a bearing on how the search engines rank your site. Submitting each page on your site separately (each with its own set of Keywords) to a directory can also help raise your rankings.

Paid Search
Internet users submit hundreds of millions of inquiries into search engines and don't pay a dime - but the search industry takes those free searches and turns them into gold. They do it by offering advertising to those who want to reach targeted buyers.

Here's how it works. Businesses enroll in a search engine's advertising program and create Pay-Per-Click ads that are Keyword-driven. They choose words or phrases that are relevant to their businesses. An auto repair shop in Chicago might choose "Chicago car mechanic." The ads appear when search engine users type in those words. When someone clicks on the ad, the business pays the search engine for that click, whether the prospect buys anything or not. Advertisers don't pay a flat fee for ad placement. Instead, they bid how much they are willing to pay when a search engine user clicks on one of their ads. The highest bid wins placement at the top of the Pay-Per-Click list. Advertisers pay the per-click amount they bid only when a user clicks on the ad.

This is a revolution in marketing. This model puts advertisers in closer touch with the people who are predisposed to purchase their products or services. Those people have expressed their interest (and their intent) through the Keywords they entered in their search query. As a result, businesses waste fewer advertising dollars. Search-based advertising has attracted thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurs that haven't spent money on advertising in the past.

Stay tuned for future posts in my Search Engines 101 series, to include more on search-engine advertising, keywords, and direct navigation traffic.

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